Berklee Breaks Open Musical Mindset for South Korean Student Hyeryun 'Bebe' Kim

At Berklee, Hyeryun 'Bebe' Kim is discovering new genres to enhance her performance and film composing.

March 23, 2015

Hyeryun Kim vividly remembers a scene in the Japanese anime film Howl’s Moving Castle when a witch chases a wizard and a girl; to save the girl, the wizard walks on air in a way that mimics flying. The music, she says, perfectly captures the feeling of flying. Kim figures she was about 13 when she first saw that fantasy film.

Kim's appreciation for anime, film, and TV grew, but it wasn’t until many years later—and more than 5,000 miles from her native Changwon, South Korea—that Kim actually considered composing music of her own.

Kim, now 23 and known as “Bebe” to her American teachers and friends, came to Berklee by way of Seattle, where she was enrolled at a community college. She planned to garner enough general credits to transfer to the University of Washington to study veterinary medicine. But along the way, she got seriously hooked on music. While she grew up surrounded by music—her mother taught private violin and piano lessons out of their home, and Kim learned violin at age four and piano at age eight—jazz was a completely new concept for her. “In my first class, the chart looked so easy, but after one chorus, I was asked to improv over it,” Kim says. “I was like, ‘What?’” The more she learned, the more she wanted to learn. In fact, the concepts became more appealing to her than veterinary medicine.

But the community college’s options were limited to basic electives, so Kim looked elsewhere to expand her growing interest. She was already familiar with Berklee through Korean pop singers, but soon discovered she could study violin and jazz here, too. “I thought it would be the perfect place to learn the music I’m interested in. In Korea, there’s no place like it,” she said.

At the same time, Kim had become intrigued by the concept of film scoring through an ensemble teacher in Seattle who composed for film. The existence of a film scoring program at Berklee sweetened the prospects of coming east. “I like to listen to music” for films, TV dramas, and animation, Kim says, “but I never thought about writing for them before.”

Expanding Her Horizons, One Note at a Time

Now in her seventh semester at Berklee, Kim—a violin principal and CJ Scholarship recipient—is finding ways to connect her varied interests. She’s majoring in film scoring and performance, and minoring in recording and production for musicians. In each area, she’s expanding her horizons while challenging convention and form.

On the performance side, Kim is learning how to move beyond her comfort zone of classical violin. She’s particularly interested in gypsy and Latin jazz. “If I can feel the music, then I can play it,” she says. “Now, I can hear the claves and find the beat.” (She’s still keeping up with her classical chops with private violin instruction with Berklee associate professor of strings Julianne Lee.)

Rebecca Cline, an associate professor of ensembles who taught Kim’s Latin Jazz Improvisation and Latin/Afro-Cuban Styles Ensemble courses, attests to Kim’s growth.

“Bebe started the semester with an assertive sense of personal style (pink hair, a hat that read ‘BORED,’ and quirky mannerisms) that was out of sync with her rather timid approach to improvisation,” says Cline. “By the end-of-semester class recital in December, Bebe sounded like a completely different musician—she played longer, more melodic phrases with rhythmic awareness and a full tone. I told her that I was very impressed with her dramatic progress as an improviser in such a short time, and she replied that she really loved the style—namely, Cuban-influenced jazz.” 

Not only is Kim incorporating Latin beats into her performance, but she is also exploring how to bring these rhythms to film composing, at times breaking from her tendency to rely primarily on strings. “Now I know how brass has the power to impact [the score],” she says.

A Plan for the Future

Just how does Kim plan to parlay her multilayered interests after she graduates? Her first stop will be Los Angeles, where she hopes to secure internships with a session player and a music editor.

When she’s gained enough industry experience, she’d like to take her skills back to South Korea and compose for TV dramas, maybe work as a session player, and then perhaps travel to Japan to write for anime. Just as Berklee has challenged what was once her classical music mindset, Kim wants to challenge dominant Asian sounds and instrumentation. “We don’t really have jazz or Latin sounds,” she says. “I want to bring something a little different to it.”

Kim loves how composing for TV and film allows her the freedom to break from form and convention—the kind she says she’d be beholden to if she were composing pop songs—and write for pure emotional effect, the kind she felt a decade ago in South Korea as she watched that wizard rescue the girl from the witch.

In fact, someday Kim hopes to have the chance to work with Studio Ghibli, creator of Howl’s Moving Castle as well as the popular anime fantasy film Spirited Away. An even bigger dream would be the chance to work with Howl’s composer, Joe Hisaishi, she says. Wherever Kim lands, there’s no doubt that she will be able to bring her own kind of fusion to what looks sure to be a full-circle journey.